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A news story 20 years from today could well start like this:

May 9, 2034 – Victoria, B.C.: Thousands of angry, unemployed tradespeople marched on British Columbia's legislative grounds yesterday in protest of what they see as government inaction. The problem stems from massive investments in postsecondary education made some two decades ago to train pipefitters, welders and electricians – all of which were in high demand in the early 2020s. But since B.C.'s major LNG facilities and pipelines were completed in 2031, thousands of workers – mostly male and in their mid-40s – have been thrown permanently out of work.

It's a plausible scenario two decades from now, but one that's avoidable if good planning is put in place today.

The "B.C.'s Skills for Jobs Blueprint," announced in this spring's budget, targets $160-million to "re-engineering education and training in B.C." According to the plan, funding in four years will reach nearly $400-million annually. And over the span of the 10-year plan, about $3-billion will be redirected toward training for high-demand occupations.

It's an ambitious plan to fill hundreds of thousands of jobs in the coming eight years, many of them in the natural gas and pipeline transportation systems. "The prospect of one million jobs in the energy sector by 2022, including openings for thousands of welders, pipefitters and heavy equipment operators to build the proposed liquefied natural gas industry and other resource projects, has the government looking to the education system to prepare a work force," according to the government's blueprint.

It all sounds wonderful and forward-looking, precisely the kinds of education and training programs the public sector should be fostering. But there are sure to be problems if the pipefitters in 2022 are unable to adapt to new careers in 2032.

How do you tell a 45-year-old heavy equipment operator –trained with tax dollars when he was 25 and given great job opportunities in northern B.C. – that the work has dried up and now he has to find a totally new career? Too young to retire but too old to easily go back to college, he's in a bind.

It's a story repeated so frequently in Canada that it questions whether we've learned anything about economic cycles and labour markets. Fishers in Newfoundland; construction workers in Alberta circa 1982; unionized auto workers in Ontario today – workers trained for very specific jobs can do extremely well in the short run. But if they have no built-in flexibility to transition to new careers, their long term prospects can be worrying.

This isn't a criticism of B.C.'s program, but rather a caution about how and why we train our young people. Giving them a specific skill and sending them on their way is no longer sufficient. What postsecondary education needs to do – be it through a liberal arts degree or a polytechnic certification program – is prepare the students not for a job, but for a lifetime of morphing careers.

Judging by a conference last week on the future of postsecondary education, the future holds exciting potential. The two-day session, sponsored by Sheridan College and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, explored new ways postsecondary schools should be delivering education. Themes of creative problem solving, innovation in curriculum design, and international study semesters featured prominently.

Especially encouraging was the fact that a good deal of the participants at the conference were from colleges and universities in B.C., which has been held up as an example for innovations in advanced education and training.

Another hopeful note comes from B.C.'s Education Minister, Peter Fassbender. With respect to his government's blueprint for skills training, he says school students will still receive arts and sciences courses, but trades options will be highlighted.

There's a danger that arts, pure sciences and humanities are cast aside in the single-minded pursuit of skilled trades. The reality is all are needed to develop the flexible, adaptable worker of the future. Without them, workers will find themselves with a single skill but no ability to adapt to changing economic landscapes.

And angry, unemployable 50-year-olds are perhaps the saddest wasted resource of all.

Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.

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